Zero-carbon housing is one mission of this year’s Sustainable Living Festival.
FOR the cost of a standard house, renegade architect Michael Reynolds builds Earthships: off-the-grid homes constructed in part from waste materials such as tyres, bottles and aluminium cans.
“The designs are always evolving,” he says. “Our latest building is performing really well: it’s maintenance-free and fuel-free, and it’s carbon zero living. But it’s obsolete because we see that we can do it better and cheaper each year.”
Mr Reynolds, who lives in New Mexico, USA, was the subject of the cult 2007 documentary Garbage Warrior. He is a keynote speaker at this year’s Sustainable Living Festival, which began yesterday and continues until February 27.
The Festival’s theme is “Mission: Safe Climate”, and main event at Federation Square runs from the coming Friday to Sunday. There will be nearly 200 exhibitors, events and talks, covering topics from eco-homes to global campaigns.
In his talk next Sunday, ‘The Art of Carbon Zero Living’, Mr Reynolds will detail the lessons he’s learned over the course of 40 years building Earthships. He’s also running workshops at CERES in East Brunswick, as well as Kinglake, Daylesford and the Yarra Valley.
He argues that while many people devote their time to individual aspects of sustainability, the biggest challenge is to combine all the elements.
“There are a lot of people doing great things working with water, power, sewage, heating and cooling, recycling or food. What we’re saying is that the art of zero carbon living is putting all those ingredients together,” he says.
“There are thousands of different ways to deal with those issues. But we have to deal with them in every home and every commercial building.”
Mr Reynolds says it’s possible to take the Earthship approach to retrofitting existing buildings. “If you live in a home that has eight rooms, that’s an energy-hog home,” he says. “Take one room and make it your safe haven – the room you retreat to when it’s super cold.”
He advises choosing a north-facing room, for the best solar exposure, and then thoroughly researching topics such as thermal mass and solar gain.
“Take it step by step. If you try to do your whole house you’re going to have to get a $200,000 loan. But if you take one room you can do it yourself with information you find online. And the next year you do another one, and another one,” he says.
“We’re trying to empower people with knowledge. We’re working hard to make our website a wealth of information that reflects what we’ve learned.”
A key lesson is that reuse is possible on a much grander scale. “So many materials are thrown away in the modern developed world. Every month we’re expanding the materials we can use, and some of them turn out to be better than materials we can buy,” he says.
Mr Reynolds argues that we have no choice but to reassess our approach to housing, given the challenges posed by climate change. Homes must no longer simply be engines of resource consumption and waste production.
“If you’re going on an adventure hike in the Himalayas, you don’t take a grand piano with you,” he says. “Living in the future on this planet is going to be an adventure and travelling light is a big first step on that adventure. But it’s not about doing without.”